Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Six)

Dante came off the elevator at the Breed warriors' compound, looking and smelling as foul as he felt. He'd been seething–mostly at himself–the entire ride down, some three hundred feet below one of Boston's most affluent addresses and the high-security gated mansion on street level that belonged to the Order. He'd made it inside with only a few minutes to spare before dawn crested over the city to put a nice toast on his UV-allergic skin.

Which would have been the perfect topper to a night that had FUBAR written all over it.

Dante headed down the stark white corridor that twisted and turned through the heart of the labyrinthine compound. He needed a hot shower and some shut-eye and looked forward to sleeping off the daylight hours alone in his private quarters. Maybe he'd sleep off the next twenty years, long enough to avoid dealing with the glorious mess he'd made topside tonight.

"Yo, D."

Dante muttered a curse under his breath when he heard the voice calling him from the other end of the corridor. It was Gideon, resident computer genius and right-hand man to Lucan, the Order's venerable leader. Gideon had the compound wired tight inside and out; he'd probably been on to Dante's arrival from the second he stepped onto the property.

"Where you been, man? You were supposed to call in your status hours ago."

Dante turned around slowly in the long hallway. "I guess you could say my status got a bit fucked up."

"No shit," the other vampire replied, taking him in with a shrewd glance over the top of square-cut pale blue shades. He chuckled, shaking his spiky crown of blond hair. "Gad, you look like hell. And you smell like toxic waste. What the devil happened to you?"

"Long story." Dante gestured to his shredded, bloodied, sodden clothing, which was rank with brine, sludge, and God knew what else from his trip down the Mystic River. "I'll fill everyone in later. Right now I need a shower."

"Industrial strength," Gideon agreed. "But cleanup is gonna have to wait awhile. We've got company in the lab." Annoyance sparked in Dante. "What kind of company?"

"Oh, you're gonna love this." Gideon gestured with his head. "Come on. Lucan wants you present for input."

Exhaling a long breath, Dante fell in step alongside Gideon. They walked up another twisting length of the corridor, heading for the tech lab, the surveillance and intel hub where the warriors held most of their meetings. As the glass wall of the lab came into view, Dante saw the three other vampire warriors who were like kin to him: Lucan, the Order's dark leader; Nikolai, the brash gearhead of the group; and Tegan, the eldest next to Lucan, and the deadliest inpidual Dante had ever known.

The Order was missing two other members of late. Rio, who had been severely injured by a Rogue ambush a few months ago and remained in the infirmary at the compound, and Conlan, who was killed by Rogues around the same time, in an explosion that took place on one of the city's train lines.

As Dante scanned the assembly of warriors, his gaze lit on one unfamiliar face. Evidently, this was the company Gideon had mentioned. The vampire male had the clean-cut looks of an accountant–right down to the dark suit and white shirt, crisp gray tie, and glossy black oxford shoes. His golden-brown hair was short, impeccably styled, not a strand out of place. Although the male was sizable beneath all that spit and polish, he brought to mind one of those chiseled pretty boys that you see in human magazine ads, hawking designer clothing or expensive cologne.

Scowling, Dante shook his head. "Tell me that's not one of the new warrior candidates."

"That," said Gideon, "is Agent Sterling Chase, of the Boston Darkhaven."

A Darkhaven law-enforcement agent. Well, that made some sense. Certainly explained the vampire's buttoned-up, useless-bureaucrat appearance. "What's he want with us?"

"Information. Some kind of alliance, from what I gather. The Darkhaven has sent him here in the hopes of obtaining the Order's help."

"Our help." Dante scoffed, skeptical. "You gotta be kidding me. It wasn't so long ago that the general population of the Darkhavens were condemning us as lawless vigilantes."

Walking beside him, Gideon glanced over with a smirk. "Dinosaurs who'd outlived their time and ought to be forced into extinction was, I believe, one of the more polite suggestions."

Ironic, considering the populations of those sanctuaries existed directly because of the warriors' continued efforts in fighting the Rogues. In the dark ages of man, long before Dante's eighteenth-century birth in Italy, the Order had acted as sole protector of the vampire race. Then, they were revered as heroes. In the time since, as the warriors hunted down and executed Rogues all over the globe, putting down even the smallest uprisings before they had a chance to take root, the Darkhavens had relaxed into a state of arrogant confidence. Rogue numbers had been few in modern times but were growing again. Meanwhile, the Darkhavens had adopted laws and procedures for dealing with Rogues as mere criminals, foolishly believing that incarceration and rehabilitation were viable solutions to the problem.

Those of the warrior class knew better. They saw the carnage up close and personal, while the rest of the population hid in their sanctuaries, pretending they were safe. Dante and the rest of the Order were the Breed's only true defense, and they chose to act independently–some might argue in defiance of– impotent Darkhaven law.

"Now they're asking for our help?" Dante fisted his hands at his side, in no mood to deal with Darkhaven politics or the fools who peddled them. "I hope Lucan's called this meeting so we can prove we're savages and kill their friggin' messenger."

Gideon chuckled as the glass doors of the lab whisked open in front of them. "Try not to scare Agent Chase away before he's had a sporting chance to explain why he's here, will you, D?"

Gideon strode inside. Dante followed, giving a nod of respect to Lucan and his brethren as he entered the spacious control room. He turned his gaze on the Darkhaven agent, holding it steady as the civilian vampire rose from his chair at the conference table and looked upon Dante's bloodied, battered condition in barely concealed disgust.

Now he was damn glad he hadn't paused to tidy up before coming in. Hoping to offend further, Dante strolled up to the agent and held out his grimy hand in offered greeting.

"You must be the warrior called Dante," said the low, cultured voice of the Darkhaven representative. He accepted Dante's outstretched hand and clasped it briefly. The agent sniffed almost imperceptibly, fine nostrils flaring as they picked up on Dante's certain stench. "A privilege to meet you. I am Special Investigative Agent Sterling Chase, of the Boston Darkhaven. Senior Special Investigative Agent," he added, smiling. "But I've no wish to stand on ceremony, so please, all of you, feel free to address me as you will."

Dante merely grunted, biting back the choice form of address that leaped to his tongue. Instead, he dropped into the seat next to the agent, holding him in a cool, unwavering stare.

Lucan cleared his throat, all it took for the eldest of the Breed to resume command of the gathering. " Now that we're all here, let's get down to business. Agent Chase has brought some disturbing news from the Boston Darkhaven. There's been a rash of young vampires going missing lately. He'd like the Order' s help in recovering them. I've told him we will."

"Search and rescue's not exactly our thing," Dante said, his eyes on the civilian as a rumble of agreement kicked up from around the table of warriors.

"That's true," Nikolai put in. The Russian-born vampire grinned from under a long hank of sandy-colored hair that didn't quite conceal the wintry chill of his ice-blue gaze. "We're more of a bag-and-tag operation."

"There's more to this than just a few stray vampires out past curfew and in need of collars," Lucan said. His grim tone dialed down the attitude in the room at once. "I'll let Agent Chase explain what's going on."

"Last month, a group of three Darkhaven youths left for a rave somewhere in the city and never returned. A week later, another two went missing. More disappearances have been happening from Boston area Darkhavens every night in the time since." Agent Chase reached into a briefcase on the floor beside him and pulled out a thick file. He tossed it to the center of the conference table. From within the manila jacket, about a dozen snapshots spilled out–faces of smiling, youthful vampire males. "These are just the reported disappearances so far. We've probably lost another couple of inpiduals in the time I' ve been here meeting with you."

Dante sifted through the pile of photographs and passed the folder around the table, figuring they couldn't all be runaways. Life in the Darkhavens could be a bore to young males with something to prove to the world, but nothing was so bad it would drive groups of them away at a time. "Have there been any recoveries at all? Any sightings? This many missing inpiduals in such a short period of time–seems like someone ought to know something about it." "There have been only a handful of recoveries."

Chase brought out another file from his case, this one considerably thinner than the first. He withdrew a few photographs and fanned them out before him on the table. They were morgue shots. Three civilian vampires, current generation, and probably not one of them older than thirty-five years. In each photo, a pair of sightless eyes stared up at the camera lens, pupils elongated to hungered slits, the natural color of the irises saturated in the amber-yellow glow of Bloodlust.

"Rogues," Niko said, practically hissing the word.

"No," Agent Chase replied. "They died in the throes of Bloodlust, but they hadn't yet turned. They were not Rogues."

Dante got out of his chair and leaned over the table to have a closer look at the pictures. His gaze was drawn immediately to the crust of dried pinkish foam that circled the subjects' slack mouths. The same kind of saliva residue he'd spotted on his attacker outside the club earlier tonight. "Any idea what killed them?"

Chase nodded. "Narcotic overdose."

"Any of you hear chatter around town about a new club drug called Crimson?" Lucan asked the group of warriors. None had. "From what Agent Chase has told me, it's a particularly nasty bit of chemistry that's been showing up lately among the Breed's younger crowds. It's a stimulant and mild hallucinogenic that also produces a burst of enormous strength and endurance. But that's just the appetizer. The real fun starts about fifteen minutes into ingestion."

"That's right," Agent Chase added. "Users who eat or inhale this red powder soon experience extreme thirst and feverlike chills. They convulse into a mindless, animal state, exhibiting all the traits of Bloodlust, from the fixed, elliptical pupils and permanently extruded fangs to the insatiable need for blood. If the inpidual is left to quench that need, he is almost certain to turn Rogue. If he continues to use Crimson, this," Chase said, pointing to the morgue photos, "is the other outcome."

Dante cursed, half in frustration for the epidemic hysteria just waiting to erupt among the Darkhaven populations, but also for the realization that the young Bloodlusting vampire he'd killed tonight was a Breed youth, like these, hopped up on the shit Chase had just described. He had a hard time feeling bad about taking the kid out when he'd been coming at Dante like a ton of bricks.

"This drug, Crimson," Dante said. "Any thought on where it's coming from, who might be manufacturing it or distributing it?"

"We have nothing more to go on than what I've presented here."

Dante saw Lucan's grave expression and understood where this was heading. "Ah, and so this is where we come in, is that it?"

"The Darkhavens have asked for our assistance in identifying and, if practical or even possible, bringing back any missing civilians we might run across in our nightly patrols. Obviously, as a part of that, it is in our shared interest to put a stop to Crimson and those who deal in it. I think we can all agree that the last thing the Breed needs is more vampires turning Rogue."

Dante nodded along with the others.

"The Order's willingness to assist with this problem is greatly appreciated. My thanks to all of you," Chase said, letting his gaze settle on each of the Breed warriors in turn. "But there is one more thing, if I may?"

Lucan gave a slight incline of his head, gesturing for the agent to continue.

Chase cleared his throat. "I would like to have an active part in the operation."

A long, heavy silence stretched out as Lucan scowled, leaning back in his chair at the head of the table. "Active in what way?"

"I want to ride along with one or more members of the Order, to personally monitor the operation and to assist in the retrieval of these missing inpiduals."

Seated on the other side of Dante, Nikolai burst out laughing.

Gideon raked his fingers through his cropped hair, then threw his pale blue shades onto the table. "We don't take civilians along on our operations. Never have, never will."

Even Tegan, the stoic one, who hadn't uttered a single word one way or the other throughout the entire meeting, was finally moved to voice his disagreement. "You won't live to the end of your first night, Agent," he said without inflection, only cold truth.

Dante held his disbelief inside, certain that Lucan would shut the agent down with the power of his level glare alone. But Lucan didn't reject the idea outright. He stood up, his fists braced on the edge of the conference table.

"Leave us," he told Chase. "My brethren and I will discuss your request privately. Our business here is finished for now, Agent Chase. You may return to the Darkhaven to await our decision. I will be in contact with you."

Dante and the rest of the warriors stood too; then, after a long moment, so did the Darkhaven agent, retrieving his polished leather case from the floor beside him. Dante took a step out from the table. When Chase tried to move past him, he got the edge of Dante's thick shoulder blocking his path. Given no choice, he paused.

"Folks like you call us savages," Dante said harshly, "yet here you are, all posh and shiny in your suit and tie, asking for our help. Lucan speaks for the Order, and if he says we're going to bail your ass out on this little problem, then that's good enough for me. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't mean I have to like you either."

"I'm not hoping to win any popularity contests. And if you have misgivings about my proposed role in this investigation, by all means, state them."

Dante chuckled, surprised by the challenge. He didn't think the guy had it in him. "Well, now, I don't mean to stand on ceremony, Special Investigative Agent Chase–'scuse me, Senior Special Investigative Agent–but what I do, what all of us in this room do, each and every night, is some dirty fucking work. We fight. We kill. We sure as shit don't run some kind of tourist program for Darkhaven agents looking to build their political careers on our blood and sweat."

"Nor is that my intention, I assure you. All that matters to me is my charge to locate and recover the inpiduals who've gone missing from my community. If the Order can stop the proliferation of Crimson in the process, so much the better. For all of the Breed."

"And how is it you feel you're even remotely qualified to go out on patrols with us?" Agent Chase glanced around the room, possibly looking for support from any one of the warriors standing around the table. The room was quiet. Not even Lucan spoke on his behalf. Dante narrowed his gaze and smiled, half-hoping the silence would drive the agent away. Send him running back to his quiet little sanctuary with his tail between his legs.

Then Dante and the rest of the Order could get back to the business of dealing death to the Rogues– preferably without an audience and a goddamn scorecard.

"I hold a BA in Political Science from Columbia University," Chase finally said. "And, like my brother and my father before me, I have a law degree from Harvard, where I graduated at the top of my class. In addition, I am trained in three schools of martial arts and have an expert-marksman rating in a shooting range of eleven hundred feet. That measure being without the aid of a scope."

"Is that right?" The r?sum? was impressive, but Dante hardly flinched in reaction. "So, tell me, Harvard, how many times have you used your training–martial arts or weapons–outside of a classroom? How much of your blood have you spilled? How much have you taken from your enemies in the heat of battle?"

The agent held Dante's flat stare, the clean-shaven, square chin climbing up a notch. "I'm not afraid to be tested on the street."

"That's good," Dante drawled. "That's real good, because if you're thinking about going to the dance with any of us, you sure as hell will be put to the test."

Chase bared his teeth in a tight smile. "Thanks for the warning."

He brushed past Dante, murmured his good-byes to Lucan and the others, then strolled out of the lab with his briefcase clutched hard in his hand.

When the glass doors slid closed behind the agent, Niko ground out a curse in his native Siberian tongue. "That's some messed-up shit, Darkhaven pencil-pusher thinking he's got balls enough to ride with us."

Dante shook his head, sharing the same opinion, but his thoughts were churning on something else equally troubling. Maybe more so.

"I got jumped downtown tonight," he said, meeting the tense faces of his brethren. "I thought it was a Rogue stalking prey outside a club. I fought with the son of a bitch, but he wasn't going down easy. Ended up pursuing him down to the riverfront, where I ran into a whole new mess of trouble. A group of heavily armed suckheads came at me hard."

Gideon slanted a narrowed gaze on him. "Damn, D. Why didn't you call in for support?"

"There wasn't time to do anything but try to save my own ass," Dante said, recalling the viciousness of the attack. "The thing is, that suckhead I chased down there fought like a demon. Virtually unstoppable, like a Gen One Rogue–maybe worse. And titanium didn't affect him."

"If he was Rogue," Lucan said, "the titanium should have smoked him on the spot."

"Right," Dante agreed. "He showed all the signs of advanced Bloodlust, but he hadn't actually turned Rogue. And there's more. That dried pink foam you can see in Chase's morgue shots? That suckhead had it too."

"Shit," Gideon said, picking up the photographs and showing them to the other warriors. "So, in addition to dealing with the continuing problem of the Rogues, now we're coming up against Breed vampires hopped up on Crimson too. In the heat of the fight, how're we going to know what we've got in our crosshairs?"

"We won't," Dante said.

Gideon shrugged. "Suddenly things don't seem so black and white."

Tegan, his expression placid and cool, exhaled a wry laugh. "As of a few months ago, our problem with the Rogues became a war. Not a lot of room for gray in that picture."

Niko nodded his head in agreement. "If a suckhead wants to get in my shit–Crimson eater or Rogue –he's got one thing to look forward to: death. Let the Darkhavens sort through the rubble once it's all over."

Lucan turned his attention to Dante. "What about you, D? Care to weigh in on this?"

Dante crossed his arms over his chest, more than ready for that shower now and an end to a night that had only proceeded to go downhill since he got out of bed. "From what little we know of Crimson, it doesn't sound good. All these missing civilians, with more all the time, is bound to start a panic in the Darkhaven populations in general. Bad enough we've got this new complication of Crimson users to deal with, but can any of you imagine the clusterfuck situation of having the streets overrun with a bunch of Darkhaven agents trying to ID missing persons and apprehend them on their own?"

Lucan nodded. "Which brings us back to Agent Chase and his request to participate in this operation. He's come to us with the same concerns, not wanting to cause widespread panic yet needing to recover the missing and find a swift solution to the problem Crimson seems to be causing among the Breed. I think he could be a benefit to us, not only in the operation itself but down the road as well. It might be good for the Order to have an ally in the Darkhavens."

Dante could not contain his scoff of incredulity. "We've never needed them. We've been pulling their nancy assess out of fires for centuries, Lucan. Don't tell me we're going to start kissing up to them now. Fuck that, man! If we let them into our business, next thing you know, we'll have to ask their permission to take a piss."

He'd gone too far. Lucan said nothing, but a glance to the other warriors and then the door sent all but Dante out of the room. Dante stared at the white marble floor beneath his sodden boots, getting the sense that he'd just stepped into a pit of misery.

No one lost control in front of Lucan.

He was the leader of the Order, had been since the initial formation of the elite cadre of warriors nearly seven hundred years ago, long before Dante or most of the other current members had been born. Lucan was first-generation Breed, his blood flowing with the genes of the Ancients, those vicious otherworlders who came to this planet millennia past, bred with human females, and started the first line of the vampire race. Gen Ones like Lucan were few now and remained the most powerful–and most volatile–of all the Breed.

He was Dante's mentor, a true friend, if Dante could be so bold as to claim the formidable warrior as such.

But that didn't mean Lucan wouldn't tear a hole in him if he felt Dante needed it.

"I could give a shit for Darkhaven PR, same as you," Lucan said, the cadence of his deep voice measured and cool. "But the news of this drug disturbs me. We need to find out who's sourcing it and sever that chain. It's too important to leave it to Darkhaven involvement. If keeping a lid on this operation for the time being so that we can get the situation under control, on our terms, means letting Agent Chase play warrior for a few nights, then that's the price we have to pay."

When Dante opened his mouth to voice a further argument against the idea, Lucan arched a black brow and cut him off before he could get the first word out.

"I've decided that you will be the one to pair up with Agent Chase on patrol."

Dante bit his tongue, knowing Lucan would abide no argument in this now.

"I choose you because you're the best one for the job, Dante. Tegan would probably kill the agent outright, just because he annoyed him. And Niko, while a capable warrior, does not have your years of experience on the street. Keep the Darkhaven agent out of trouble, but don't lose sight of the true goal: exterminating our enemies. I know you won't let me down. You never have. I'll contact Chase and let him know that his tour begins tomorrow night."

Dante gave a low nod of acceptance, not trusting himself to speak when outrage was pouring through his veins. Lucan clapped him on the shoulder as if to say he understood Dante's simmering anger, then headed out of the lab. Dante could only stand there for a moment, his jaw clamped so tight his molars burned with the pressure.

Had he really walked into the compound thinking that this night couldn't get any worse?

Holy hell, had he been wrong about that.

After everything he'd been through the past twelve hours, culminating with this unwanted babysitting assignment, he was going to have to seriously recalibrate his idea of Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.